It's an average day at John F. Kennedy High School in Columbus, Ohio: Fights in the hallways, a stabbing, 10% of teachers failing to even show up, and lawyers in the office chomping at the bit with depositions.
Among the supporting players are Crispin Glover as Eddie's bullied best friend, Laura Dern as one of the popular students, Judd Hirsch as the school principal, Richard Mulligan as a psychiatric hospital inmate turned history teacher, JoBeth Williams as a lawyer for a recent graduate who's suing the school for giving him a diploma even though he can't read, and Morgan Freeman (in an early film role) as a lawyer for the school.
Tropes seen in the film:
- Abusive Parents: Eddie Pilikian's father hits him.
- Actor Allusion: Richard Mulligan as Gower dresses up as George Custer for his lesson on the Battle of Little Bighorn. Years earlier, Mulligan played George Custer in Little Big Man.
- Bunny-Ears Lawyer: In spite of being an escaped psychiatric hospital inmate, Gower's unusual teaching style proves to be effective. He's one of the only teachers in the school whose students are engaged and seem interested in learning the material. In Gower's final scene in the film, the students ask him questions about the Battle of Little Bighorn and are genuinely dismayed when staff from the psychiatric hospital finally take Gower away.
- Big Brother Instinct: Eddie Pilikian Towards Daniel Reece. Could be read as Eddie towards Diane, the student that was impregnated by a teacher.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Gower is an escapee from an insane asylum (described as having "reality issues" by his psychiatrist) who lies about his identity and credentials to become one of the more well-liked and successful teachers in the school.
- Cool Teacher: Jurel is generally seen as one of the better teachers in the school.
- Distracted from Death: One of the teachers (nicknamed "Ditto" because the photocopier does most of the teaching for him) has such a structured and hands off approach to his teaching that he dies seemingly reading a newspaper and at least 2 periods of classes come and go before anyone notices.
- Dr. Psych Patient: A delusional patient wanders into the school and is mistaken for the new American history instructor. He embraces the role and winds up teaching for most of the year, winning students' approval with his over-the-top costumed portrayals of historical figures.
- Sucky School: A school full of juvenile delinquents and incompetent/corrupt teachers and staff. Among the highlights are students getting stabbed or shot, teachers fighting one another or refusing to work, teachers having sex with students, a student suing the school after he graduated despite being illiterate, and an escaped insane asylum inmate as a substitute teacher.
- Teacher/Student Romance: A pretty messed-up version of this considering we learn the gym teacher impregnated a teenager and it is swept under the rug to try to save face for the school.
- The Cynic: Alex Jurel, subverted when he has a moment of awesome in saving the school.
- Troubled, but Cute: Eddie Pilikian.